Last year, Liz Pelly wrote for The Baffler
where she contrasted the language used by Spotify and Uber and centered on this false narrative of “independence” that both companies offer. One could certainly argue that if an artist is making a living wage on Spotify, then perhaps they’re seeing similar income from other platforms and may only need partial wages from Spotify, YouTube, Apple Music, etc. to strap together a living. Yet, when will artists start to realize that not only are they the anchor labor that powers these platforms but also that their desire for collective demands should be heard not just at Spotify, but also at Apple, Amazon, YouTube, and all major music platforms?
Via the American Federation of Musicians, or perhaps even via coalitions of international music trade unions, artists could start to do the math and ask for specific protections and resources. This is a fundamental model that was designed back in the 1940s between the American Federation of Musicians and record labels to establish labor peace
. It led to the creation of a fund that would use industry profits towards free public concerts that paid a union wage for underemployed workers.
In the 21st century, when large international firms are the primary platforms for music distribution, the scope of asks could be far bigger. Demands like health care for musicians in countries where that isn’t provided, funds towards equipment, resources to allow musicians to pursue their careers, and perhaps the allocation of funds back towards housing could all be made. The current model of music labor is highly atomized, and when positioned between people who need to negotiate with labels, there is little room to conceive of a collective struggle. Yet, if a critical mass of artists is capable of making a living off a platform or a set of them, then suddenly they will realize that they can make the same demands that any worker makes to his or her boss.
Spotify’s million artist vision could allow for similar forms of solidarity on a mass level. Musicians can organize for better business practices but also rally their own fans to support and endorse such goals. Suddenly, this kind of alliance could very well threaten the basic paradigm of how a for-profit business is meant to operate when squeezed on both sides of its two-sided marketplace. If fans don’t feel their favorite artists are not being treated fairly by the platform they use then there is a deeper reach to coordinate the desired change. Now, one would rightfully ask how a platform used by the entire globe would do that, which is where I’ll admit this thought exercise might have to run its course. Yet, if Spotify’s going to one day sustain the lives of a million artists, I would expect those musicians to have a few words for their new boss.